Thursday, January 12, 2012

Telling the Story

This week we are opening a six month exhibition of three bodies of my work that relate to the Holocaust.  This exhibition is housed in the Eiger-Zaidenweber Holocaust Resource Center on the second floor of the Barry Family Campus in Minneapolis (4330 Cedar Lake Rd South).  The show is very much a collaborative effort with sponsorship by Talmud Torah, the U of M's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest and the Tychman Shapiro Gallery.

The focus of this exhibition and related programming is the question of how we tell the story of the Holocaust, particularly as we have fewer survivors to share their first-hand testimony.  Over time, “story” becomes “history” and the immediacy is lost while distortion becomes all too prevalent. 

As you enter the gallery you see my series “A Hole in Time” that looks at the pre-war Jewish community of Radom, Poland, the town my grandfather came from.    Drawn from imagery in a 1937 film of the Jews of Radom, these paintings evoke snapshots of a once thriving community.  Coupled with this artwork are the pre-war photographs of my friend Dvora who grew up in Radom and was 15 years old when the war broke out.  Her photos were hidden in the shoes of her brother and her husband during their time in the camps.  We had the opportunity to exhibit this work and Dvora’s photographs in Radom, Poland in 2011.

That series leads into my work on Lithuania where I looked for the traces of the former Jewish community and how Lithuania deals with the history that transpired on its soil.  My discomfort with the reframing of history that has occurred in Lithuania is expressed in several of these paintings.  When I toured the Vilnius Genocide Museum in 2009, much to my puzzlement, there was nothing on the Holocaust.  Keep in mind that the town was 45% Jewish and 95% of the Jews were murdered, the most significant case of genocide that ever occurred in that region.  If the Genocide Museum were your source of information, you would not realize the Holocaust occurred.  It addressed only the Soviet occupation. There is no need to actively deny the Holocaust, reframing and silence do a more than adequate job of that.  This series is called “The Silence Speaks Loudly” as I found the silence quite deafening.

My third series is drawn from the Jewish Identity and Legacy project.  As part of this project* I interviewed a range of Jewish elders and then developed artwork around their stories.  Included in this exhibition are interviews with four local survivors around whose stories I developed both artwork and video.

I must confess that when I was developing this artwork, I didn’t think in terms of the larger story arc.  In each case I was following a thread that intrigued me and that was sufficient.  In fact, the broader theme emerged only after I grouped these series into one exhibition.  I then began to see how they knit together. 

All the work is around the common theme of story and in each case I had the opportunity to gather stories first-hand from those who lived them.  In Lithuania I heard from our guides, a former partisan and a hidden child.  My friend Dvora shared her stories of our common Polish ancestral town, both before and during the war.  In Minnesota I learned the experiences of Jewish elders who survived the war and built new lives in Minnesota.   In each case I had the opportunity to hear the stories directly.  I have deep admiration for these dynamic people in their 80s and 90s who have a commitment to educating others in the hopes of making “never again” a reality.  I often find myself thinking that ten years from now they are unlikely to be here, and what then?  I already see history being rewritten in Lithuania.  How do we keep it alive and immediate?  How do we keep it from being distorted to meet the agendas of different groups?  And what is my responsibility, and yours, to keep it alive?

My artwork grew out of a need to both process what I was learning and a sense of responsibility to retell the stories.  I often feel that my efforts are meager compared to the power of first-hand testimony, but it is my small effort to keep the stories alive and accessible. 

*Jewish Identity and Legacy interviews were funded by the State of Minnesota Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund, administered through the Minnesota Historical Society

1 comment:

  1. I'm reading this post the day after we had a Holocaust survivor over for dinner. I've been trying to understand the whole Israeli/Palestinian situation. I wanted to get the views of someone with first hand knowledge. He brought me several books from his personal library to read.
    This guy is incredible in so many ways, not the least of which is his sense of humor. I worte a post earlier today on a story he told us. You can read it at Things We Take for Granted.